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Which List is Best ?

by Golf Course Guide Editor Selwyn Berg Feb 2012

Golf Course rankings are always controversial, and this year Golf Digest have come out with a direct swipe at their rival Golf Australia’s process. So which list really is the best, what’s the best process, and what criteria should be used?

The Golf Course Guide established a numerical course ranking system in 1998. At that time, and for years afterwards, Golf Digest judges were restricted to assessing courses in their home state only – the National result was then somehow put together. There was no mention of clear criteria, numbers or statistics.

The Guide’s criteria are

Course Design (40% weighting): How each hole presents an enjoyable, even thrilling challenge to golfers of all abilities from scratch markers to high handicappers and shorter hitters. The variety of different holes that make up the course, and the variety of shots that they require to test every facet of your game. The strategic design of each hole - where hazards come into play, reward for risk takers plus the existence of a safer/easier option, maybe with an additional stroke, for those who choose not to take the risk.

Course Conditions (40% weighting): Year round playing conditions (from best to worst season) and course maintenance of greens (greatest weighting), fairways, tees, roughs and hazards.

Course Aesthetics (20% weighting): The obvious beauty of the setting and also that very subjective quality of ambience and tranquillity that allows the golfer to lose himself in his environment.

Judges scores are mathematically adjusted to account for any particular harshness or leniency and spurious results are eliminated.

The percentages were arrived at by listening to Guide readers – Public Access Course players – who dictated that conditioning was important for an enjoyable round.
Mackenzie decreed that “The course should be equally good during winter and summer, the texture of the greens and fairways should be perfect, and the approaches should have the same consistency as the greens”. More than just firm greens and smooth fairways – our players agree with the good Doctor: “There should be a complete absence of the annoyance and irritation caused by the necessity of searching for lost balls”, they feel that balls should not plug in a bunker face, or be held up by thick rough on the edge of a bunker.

But where the Guide really delivers on its objective to ‘guide’ readers to courses they will enjoy is by publishing three distinct lists – rankings by Design, Conditions and Aesthetics – allowing readers effectively to select their own criteria and weightings.



Golf Australia Magazine published their first Top 100 list in the Jan 2012 Edition (previously they only ranked the Top 50).
My principal criticism of their process is that it is vague – the magazine states “The criterion used by each judge places greater emphasis on a course’s design and less on its conditioning. While a layout’s general presentation remains important, we felt it was unfair to place too much weight on this element for two main reasons. A judge might happen to visit a course at a time of year when the conditioning is not at its best. Less emphasis on conditioning also addresses the problem of courses being elevated beyond their true rank based on immaculate conditioning courtesy of a huge budget, rather than its overall design and conditioning qualities.”

So how much emphasis is appropriate for design? 90%, 51%, or some other percentage? What is a course’s ‘true’ rank? With an adequate number of visits by the judging panel throughout the year is it not appropriate that a course be judged on year-round conditions as demanded by Mackenzie? And are there not other qualities that should be assessed? Mackenzie again: “The course should have beautiful surroundings, and all the artificial features should have so natural an appearance that a stranger is unable to distinguish them from nature itself”.


Golf Digest Editor Steve Keipert (see Note 1 below) tees off at GA’s “preposterous mistake of allowing its judging panel to be infiltrated, even dominated, by course architects – the very people whose work we are appraising.”

There are four course designers on GA’s panel of 20, although one suspects that playing editor Mike Clayton and a few of the ‘course design aficionados’ carry considerable weight. Clayton is associated with work on 9 of the top 20 courses on GA’s list! The issue here is that one would expect him to rate his own work highly – otherwise why did he design it that way?

And the results speak for themselves – outside of the Top 10, apart from The Lakes (13 on both lists if we delete Ellerston which GA did not rank) and Lake Karrinyup (14 in GA and rated higher at 11 in Digest), every other course where Clayton has worked received a higher rank in the GA list - Peninsula North (17 vs 30), Peninsula South (28 vs 41), Portsea(32 vs 44), Spring Valley (44 vs 55), Port Fairy (54 vs 62), Ranfurlie (60 vs 72), Healesville (53 vs not ranked).

Digest used a panel of 45 judges, and their criteria are:

Shot Values: How well does the course pose risks and rewards and equally test length, accuracy and finesse? And how difficult, yet fair, is the course? 40%
Design Variety: How varied are the holes in length, terrain, hazard placements and green contours? 20%
Memorability: How well do features provide individuality to each hole yet a collective continuity to the entire 18? And how well do scenic values add to your enjoyment? 20%
Conditioning: How fast, firm and rolling were the fairways, and how firm yet receptive were the greens on the date you last played the course? 20%


It is understood that only recently Digest eliminated some doubtful scorers and started adjusting for harsh and lenient judges.

The combination of Shot Values and Design Variety (60% total) may be compared with the Guide’s ‘Design’ criterion, however the Guide places less emphasis on testing the best golfers, and more on providing enjoyment for the majority.

The Guide places more emphasis on conditioning, partly because green fee players generally demand good conditions. The Guide includes tees, roughs and hazards - all aspects of grass cutting, in effect separating what the designer can control from what the course superintendent manages on a daily basis.
Digest’s Conditioning criteria assesses only fairways and greens, but presumably mowing lines and tree management would be considered under Shot Values. In effect then, there is not as great a difference in the weightings as the headline percentages imply.

So which list is ‘best’? For ‘course design aficionados’ GA presents a pretty compelling case. Digest obviously consider a broader range of criteria, weighted in a particular way, and will appeal to many golfers. Both lists and the accompanying editorials will create debate amongst golf course constituents – owners, members, committees, designers and superintendents – and help to promote magazine sales. A bit of friendly rivalry doesn't hurt either.

Of course I’m biased, and it’s just for Public Access Courses, but only The Golf Course Guide provides the average golfer with the detailed analysis that he needs to select a course to suit his own requirements – be they for beautiful surroundings, for excellent grooming, or for a thrilling challenge. The 432page book also provides substantial green fee savings, brief descriptions, contact details and maps. <More info…

Note 1. On 24 Feb Golf Australia announced that Steve Keipert would join Editor Brendan James as Deputy Editor. This surprise move should really create some interest.